Chapter Twenty-Six

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Jim Davis balks at first, explaining that Paul's timeout is meant to simulate "full removal from the project, military-grade incarceration." When I explain back that I can do what needs doing without consulting Paul; it just might take an extra two hours of guesswork, he relents.

I rip the duct tape from the jamb and blow into the kitchenette.

It's grim. I couldn't see the full scene through the door glass, black tarps masking the windows. Paul's wrists are zip-tied to the table. Plastic chords looped through AV cutouts allow roughly enough space for them to roll perpendicular, but no more. The pantry and sink areas are tarped-off, limiting him to maybe an 8' by 5' area. The lighting feels cruelly bright now, though the bulbs seem no different. The only item in sight is a stapler—center of the table, jaws open, vaguely menacing with its metal guts exposed.

I bite the corner of my lip. "Paul, oy. You're in here because of me, right? The badge—they blamed you for accessing the journal entr—"

"We can still make the next checkpoint," Paul cuts in, louder than necessary.

I pinch my eyes. He angles his half-donut-bald head toward a corner of the room, where a round lens peers down from a silver box.

He beckons me closer. There aren't any other chairs so I hop up onto the tabletop, legs dangling over. Then I shuffle around, Paul directing me with small moves of the eyes and shoulders until my back blocks both our faces from the lens.

I whisper, "I'm so sorry, Paul. I should have been quicker."

"Don't apologize. I took the heat on purpose." He looks down at his wrists, chapped where the zip-ties have rubbed. "We can't build this software without you. You see what they're doing—injections, our stock options. Who knows what else."

Finishing, he drops his gaze onto my toes—which are apparently too close to resist, even under such dire circumstances.

"How'd they even believe you?" I ask. "You were on 2 the whole time."

"I'm not certain they do. I believe they're turning a blind eye for the same reason: they know that if you were here instead, the project would have virtually no chance of success."

He recounts the last hour on the engineering front. While I was digging through the Accounting labyrinth, the team was treading water. Jared's module has been stuck at 25% unit-test compliance. Half his interfaces don't have a single line of code committed against an implementation, and to Paul's knowledge, the prototype hasn't escaped its sandbox—the overriding goal of that piece of the program—once.

I ask how Prisha is doing on our optimization piece.

"Somewhat better," Paul says. "But Elite wants 80% compliance by 7:00 tonight, and she'll need a giant leap to get there."

I push my tongue high up my cheek.

He continues, "Q4 options vanish at 7:00. They start borrowing against Q1 at midnight. That money, I—if that goes away, I probably have to switch my girls to another school."

"This outfit is controlled by Russian interests." I briefly explain about Voronezh. "Whatever they're doing here—whatever we're doing—is in the service of a hostile foreign entity."

My eyes pulse with zeal while his, once again, fall to my feet.

Really? Paul's been great today, but come on already. We're discussing the seizing of our company by armed oligarghs and he can't muster the willpower to suppress his pervy fetish?

"Stop," I say. "Could you just not stare at my feet? For two minutes? I get that workplace-harassment culture isn't top of mind right at this moment, but please. It creeps me out."

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